Service dog bringing smiles, comfort to sick kids at Children’s Mercy Hospital

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- They say dogs are man's best friend, but at Children's Mercy Hospital, Hunter the service dog is everyone's best friend.

Taylia Vannicola lights up when Hunter walks her way. The golden retriever is a bright spot for the little girl diagnosed with leukemia and going through her second round of chemo treatments.

"The joy that she's been able to have makes the stays so much easier," said Nicole Vannicola, Taylia's mother.

The metro mom is thankful Children's Mercy has a service dog on staff, comforting her daughter and other children on the fourth floor with help from his handler.

"Sometimes there are times when I leave the room and I think, 'I don't know if it matters or not,' and then later I will hear from the parents that that was the first time they smiled that day or the first time they talked today," said Aimee Hoflander, Hunter's handler.

Hunter received special training in Atlanta and was specifically chosen for this position at Children's Mercy. Now, he makes the rounds five days a week, wearing a special vest and visiting as many as 10 patients a day.

"We have kids report less nausea and less pain, just an overall feeling better emotionally," Hoflander said. "So he helps physically and emotionally for patients and their families."

Hunter's claim to fame is crawling in bed and snuggling up. Even when times get tough, he's there.

"There have been times when we've been in the room close to end of life, and he's just lying on the bed with the patient, and afterward he's very tired," Hoflander said. "It's very emotionally exhausting for these dogs to do things like that. Whether he's just playing or doing something a little more stressful, he's definitely tired at the end of the day."

He's especially tired after playing with little Taylia. Thankfully, her doctors believe her treatments are working and she'll be in remission soon. Until then, at least one more round of chemo -- with Hunter by her side.

"It's always nice to see a familiar face, and it will help her get re-acclimated again for something that's not always that fun," Nicole Vannicola said.

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